Period Poverty

Menstruation remains shrouded in myths and misconceptions and access to period products remain out of reach for millions. Advocates are making change in London, Ontario and in a few countries around the world, so that people who menstruate can live free of shame, anxiety and infection.

By Jennifer Parraga, BA’93

In February 2019, Period. End of Sentence. was awarded the Oscar for Best Documentary (Short Subject). Presented during the live award ceremony, the win elevated the conversation about period poverty and taboos about menstruation to an audience of nearly 29.6 million people.

The estimated 1.8 billion people around the world who menstruate welcomed the conversation. Despite being a normal biological process, menstruation remains shrouded in myths and misconceptions and access to menstrual products continue to be out of reach for millions around the world.

Sydney Eaton, Medicine Class of 2021, explored ancient mythological, cultural and religious perceptions of menstruation and the continuing detrimental effect it has on people who menstruate in her history of medicine research paper, “Menstruation Myths: Exploring Historical, Cultural and Religious Foundation Of Period Misperceptions And Their Impact Today.”

She became intrigued by the subject following a lecture during her obstetrics and gynaecology block that alluded to the negative connotations of menstruation and how they were rooted in myths passed on through the ages.

“It wasn’t centralized in one era or religion,” she said. “It was really fascinating to see how consistent the ideas were and how deeply they were embedded in the various cultures.”

Through her research, Eaton learned that many of these ideas served as the foundation for modern attitudes toward menstruation.

Plan Canada’s 2019 Gender Study shared that 68 per cent of women in Canada felt that their period prevented them from full participation in an activity. More than half have missed school, work or social activities. The number was higher for women under 25 years of age, with 70 per cent refraining from participation.

What’s more alarming is how anxiety-provoking periods can be for people, with much of that anxiety related to lack of access to menstrual hygiene products. Nearly a quarter of Canadian women and a third of women under 25 have reportedly struggled to afford menstrual products for themselves or their dependants.

It is also estimated that Canadians who menstruate typically spend up to $6,000 in their lifetime on menstrual hygiene products. And those who live in more remote, rural and northern communities can expect to pay double the price for the same products found in larger urban communities.

In 2014, it was reported that Canadians who purchased menstrual hygiene products spent about a total of $519 million and approximately $36 million in government sales tax was collected as a result. And while the government finally removed the tax from the products in 2015, the costs continue to be prohibitive to many.

People have reportedly gone without food in order to afford menstrual products, while others are forced to navigate their way through health issues due to lack of access.

What’s more alarming is how anxiety-provoking periods can be for people, with much of that anxiety related to lack of access to menstrual hygiene products.

Dr. Tracey Crumley, Acting Chair/Chief, Obstetrics and Gynaecology, says that localized infections and even toxic shock syndrome can occur due to reuse or prolonged use of menstrual products. She also points out that social isolation and loss of dignity because of lack of access to products or fear of leaks compound the issue even further.

In her book Invisible Women: Data Bias In A World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado Perez noted that in the United Kingdom, homeless shelters are able to provide free condoms but they cannot request free menstrual products.

She further noted the traumatic impact this can have on refugees, those who are living in extreme poverty and hit with humanitarian crises, who can go for years without access to products – often having to use old rags, pieces of moss or pieces of mattresses.

Thanks to advocacy groups, the subject of period poverty is being more widely discussed and leading to greater access to free products.

This discussion aligns with public opinion – at least in Canada. A Plan Canada survey indicates that 81 per cent of Canadian women and 75 per cent of men of all ages support or somewhat support making menstrual hygiene products available for free in public spaces including park facilities, libraries and community centres.

Londoner Rachel Ettinger used her platform as a radio host on a local radio morning show and a project called Here For Her (@ShopHereforHer) to initiate change in the city. Her advocacy, with encouragement and support from Matthew Sereda, Equity Learning Coordinator with the Thames Valley District School Board (TVDSB), led to change locally. First the TVDSB agreed to provide free access to products at its 26 public secondary schools and then London’s City Council voted in favour of providing access to free products in all city-owned facilities.

“London was the first city in Canada to provide free menstrual products in city-owned facilities, and it’s really thanks to all the support received from the health care community and supporters of Here For Her,” Ettinger said.

In 2019, the University Student’s Council (USC) at Western University also completed a pilot project to explore the costs and benefits to providing free menstrual products in washroom facilities in the University Community Centre.

Carina Gabriele, who was the Student Programs Officer for the USC at the time, spearheaded the initiative. For months, Gabriele and her fellow officers stocked more than 12,000 products in the washrooms and tracked costs while surveying students’ opinions about free access. In the end, they provided a business report to University leadership for consideration.

In early 2020, the Scottish Parliament voted unanimously to support a new bill to provide all menstrual products free in all public places such as community centres, youth clubs and pharmacies. New Zealand wasn’t far behind, with the government announcing that it would be providing all products for free in schools.

Period. End of Sentence. features a small group of courageous women living in Delhi, India who learn to manufacture pads so that women in their community can finally have access to menstrual products. Their story inspired millions and together, with the advocacy of many more, taboos and myths about menstruation are lessening and many community and national leaders are recognizing the importance of period poverty and making products more accessible.